Tim Latham

Blog

Pro Tools Recording Session

Well, I’m back from England having finished 5 weeks of recording The Kanyu Tree at Angelic Studios and it’s fair to say that pro tools/daw’s have changed the way in which records are made forever.  This has been true for a while, but this record has point a fine point on this sentiment.  This is the bands first record so they didn’t have the history of the limits of analog recording so they were free to explore all of the options available to them to make the record that they wanted to.  Tempo has always been an issue when making records.  What works live doesn’t always work on record.  Natural timing pushes and pulls give recorded music it’s human feel.  While locking everything to a grid is appropriate sometimes, it occasionally takes the heart out of a song. This was the biggest challenge on this project.

The producer and the band liked some sections of some songs to be locked solid to a grid, but other sections felt too stiff.  We tried recording the songs at several tempos and then edited the sections together, each having it’s own tempo.  But some songs still didn’t “feel” right.  The answer came in the form of elastic audio.  We averaged out the tempos, recoded the song to a click at one tempo and had the flexibility to change tempos of different sections using elastic audio until the song worked as a whole.  While certain sections felt good at a specific tempo, but when the song played through some of the sections still needed to be tweaked just a bit to get the whole song to feel right.  I’ll state the obvious by saying that this was inconceivable before daws/pro tools came along.

Also, some of the arrangements are huge with many layers of vocals and guitars that would have taken tons of bouncing down and comping to make room for further overdubs.  We had the luxury of experimenting with varying arrangements thanks to the massive track count in pro tools.  Being that I wasn’t sure if I would be the mix engineer for the project, I made sure that the tracks were cut n a way that would allow for maximum flexibility during the mix.  The quick example is that I made sure to take a dry di signal on all of the guitars and bass for the purpose of re-amping.  Being that I am indeed mixing the record I’m glad that I thought of the mix engineer when recording.

Having spent much of my time over the past years mixing, I had a pretty clear picture in my minds ear of how I though the record would sound when finished.  By getting better at mixing, my recording engineer skills have also improved as well.  I have a pretty good sense of how different instruments blend together in a mix so I’m able to record them in a way that facilitates the mixing process.  Keeping the final mix in mind as I’m recording helps me tremendously when it comes time to mixing as I hope that when other engineers mix tracks that I’ve cut find that there is less damage control going on and just having fun with the balances and imaging.  It was a tremendous experience working with such a talented team and using all of what pro tools has to offer to cut an awesome record.  On to mixing……

Recording session

For the past few weeks and for the next several I’m recording an Irish rock band of brothers in the English countryside in a barn converted into a studio, Angelic Studios, with Ali Shaheed Muhammed from A Tribe Called Quest producing.  It’s a great combination of influences and it’s been quite fun with the usual long hours and a lot of laughs.  The first challenge for me was to switch gears.  The day before I hoped on a flight to this side of the pond I was mixing a Spanish artist that mashed up traditional flamenco with drum loops, samples and horn sections.  It was a big gear shift to go from mix engineer to recording engineer in a day, on a different continent, and vastly different styles.  Having mixed and recorded both genres many times made the shift exponentially easier, but it’s a big change nonetheless.  The focus of each is fairly different.

Recording and mixing are two half’s of the same brain.  Mixing drains the creative side, and tracking the more technical side of my grey matter.  My approach is to record with the final mix in mind.  As the track takes shape, I try to hear the song finished while we’re still recording.  I started the tracking session out by creating a template in pro tools to use at the start of recording each new song, complete with input and output assignments as well as group assignments.  The group assignments are crucial when doing multiple takes, which we were doing.  I set up a group of all of the tracks that constituted the live tracks (drums, bass and guitar) and when it came time for a new take, I simply created a new playlist (with the group activated) on one instrument and all of the other tracks in the group added a new one as well.  The file management can get a bit out of control when working with many takes, so careful attention is a necessity at all times.  Sessions also get a bit messy as you start to overdub, so I make sure that I keep plenty of notes doth in the comments window and by scribbling on a pad as we go.

Tracking Setup

I’ll detail the sessions and setup when I get back to NY.  As always, it’s been yet another learning experience.

Update: Recording with the final mix in mind

I recently had the pleasure of producing/recording/mixing a blues album for some very talented folks who happen to be friends of mine as well, The Tangiers Blues Band. The idea was simple, yet hardly original: Record an album in a day. We spoke about the technical aspects of recording, briefly. The idea was to set up and let them play. It is a blues records. And to me that meant not getting too precious about any of the technical details. I used 4 mics on the drums, one each on the guitars,lap/pedalsteel and bass with a pair on the B-3. Eleven mics were used on the whole record.

Tangiers Tracking Session Set Up

I used no more than 14 tracks on any song. We recorded the entire album live in 4 hours. Some of the vocals were replaced and the harp had to be overdubbed overdubbed (Harpist, Danny Clinch has a  day gig in photography and he was busy shooting Eric Clapton the day we recorded).  Less than 8 hours total were spent cutting the whole project and about the same amount of time was spent mixing it. I knew in my minds ear exactly how I wanted the record to sound and I nailed it. I approached the recording with mindset that a different mix engineer was going to mix it and I wanted to make it obvious what we were after. I love getting tracks from great recording engineers because it makes mixing so much easier. Whether or not others think it’s a good recording is a matter of taste. But having a crystal clear picture in my minds ear before we started allowed me to set up quickly, get out of the way and let the boys make some noise. A sample of what we accomplished is here.

Genres and Career Possibilities

I’d like to start this  by having the you ask yourselves a question:  How long of a career do you want to have as a mix engineer?  It takes quite some time to become a good mixer and to build a resume.  But to do so built on a single genre in my estimation will shorten your career.  An engineers life cycle is “Who’s Tim Latham?…Get me Tim Latham!!…Get me someone just like Tim Latham!!!…Who’s Tim Latham?”

No matter how successful you become, there will be someone new who wants your gig.  I highly recommend that you, the aspiring mix engineer, try to work on as many genres as possible.  This is a difficult task because as you become proficient and successful in a particular style, you’ll get more work in that style, and it’s difficult to turn away work.  This is not a bad thing, but a good situation.  Success breeds success.  But try to think a few years ahead and set goals.  What might be popular today might not be popular a few years from now and your name will be connected with a fad that’s passed.  You will become pigeon-holed whether you like it or not.  It is a challenge to diversify, especially when considering the city in which you work.  There aren’t too many country records being cut in New York.  If you are living in a city where one genre is the bulk of the work, you have a challenge ahead of you.  If it means taking a few low/no paying gigs in an unpopular genre on the side, take them.  Take them and build your discography.  Your mixes are your business cards.  There have been very successful engineers that have had great, long lasting careers working in a single genre, but you can increase your odds by expanding your resume.  The sad truth is that often your work as an engineer is often overshadowed by sales or lack of sales.  There are mixers who get a lot of work based off the hits that they’ve been involved with, sometimes with less than stellar work.  You might be a great engineer, but you might be overlooked (for a while) due to lack of sales.
I think that it’s even more important now to be diverse and competent in a wide range genres due to declining overall sales and even more importantly, because genres are being mashed together with great ease thanks to pro tools and daw’s in general.
You should strive to be a great mix engineer, not a great”___” engineer.  Bruce Swedien is my favorite example, as well as being one of my heroes.  His work has spanned decades and many genres and he is one exceptional mixer and a great guy to boot!

Recording with the final mix in mind

This weekend I recorded an album. Not a single. Not the basics. I recorded an entire blues album in one day. I was contacted by some very talented friends about cutting their newest record. I said great, let’s do it Saturday. The response was a bit doubtful but everyone was encouraged by the challenge. How do you record an album in a day? Preparation. The band knew the songs cold and I was kinda familiar with the studio. The night before, we did a quick prep of the room, and showed the next day to make the final adjustments of the amp placements. I chose the proper mics for each instrument and placed them in a manner to get the best sound with the greatest amount of isolation. This is where my skills as a mix engineer came into play. Having spent years tracking before I started spending most of my time as a mixer, I knew how to place everything in the room (it was a very small room) to achieve enough isolation. By knowing how the final record should sound before the first note was recorded I knew we would get great results under less than ideal conditions. Having this picture in my minds ear was crucial to getting the results we did. That picture developed over years of mixing records. There’s unfortunately no substitute for time served. After an hour or so of setting up pro tools for the session and checking all of the mics we were ready to go. And go we did. We cut 12 songs in a day, the old school way. My thoughts were that it’s a blues record, not a polished work of art to hang in a museum. Raw rough and rugged is what we went for and achieved, but it sounds really good. With a minimal mic set up, I achieved a really full sound. By having the picture in my mind before we recorded, mixing is going to be a breeze. This is a perfect illustration of my theory that in order to become a great recording engineer, you need to learn to mix first. Most of us learn both as we go so I suggest to practice mixing as often as possible. Like a great athlete, it all comes down to training, and we train our ears.

Listening to your favorite mixes

As a beginning mix engineer, I found a few records that I loved the way they sounded. Some of them being Earth Wind and Fire’s “All n All”, Donald Fagens “The Nightfly” and Peter Gabriels “So”. You should try to find a record that you really love and use it as a reference when mixing. Don’t try to copy every part of I, because that is an impossible task. There are literally thousands of decisions that go into the sound of a mix, including all of the thousands of decisions that went into the recording process. Choice of mic, mic placement, mic pre, compression, eq, room, etc… on often 40-70 instruments adds up to a lot of decisions during the recording process. And an equal amount of decisions go into the mixing process. So to try to replicate what a mixing engineer has done to arrive at a mix is difficult if not impossible. I am suggesting using a song or a record as a reference of the overall balance, sound or mood. Also, it’s important to develop your own style. Pick your record and close your eyes and listen. Listen to a lot of records. Listen to the relationship between the rhythm track and the vocals. Figure out which of the harmonic instruments (keys, guitars etc…) are more “up front” and which are tucked in/back. These relationships are important because they create dimension. Borrow different sounds or uses or reverb that create these dimensions in your mixes. And don’t be too concerned about genre. It’s actually incredibly useful to be able to cross reference instruments across genre lines. I can’t stress the importance of listening to as many records as you can from as many genres as you can handle. (There are some genres I can’t listen to, but they’re very few). Happy listening.

Online Audio Education

I’ve been receiving a lot of questions regarding online audio engineering programs. There is desire amongst home studio engineers to learn more about their craft. Bit there appears to be a limited amount of options available. The two most common sources for such an education are the big name music schools and instructional dvd’s. There doesn’t seem to be many other alternatives. After years of fielding the same questions, I’ve developed an online program that I’m pretty sure fills the gap between the two. It is designed to increase your skill set as a mix engineer. I’ve drawn from my 23 years of experience in recording studios to assemble what I think can be of tremendous value to home recording enthusiasts and established mix engineers who want to advance their careers in the music industry. The technical details are being finalized and within the next week or two and the program will be detailed here. Please check back and feel free to contact me as your input will help me shape the program

An eq tip from a master

Eq. A favorite topic amongst audio engineers, veterans and aspiring alike. I’m often be asked what my favorite eq is. And the answer without fail is always the same: the one that gets the job done. It could be real Pultec EQP 1A or a free plugin. After some time, mix engineers build up a library of knowledge regarding the sound of dozens of eq’s and how/when to use them. Sometimes the gentle boost on the top end from a EQP1A is more appropriate than the more aggressive top end of an API 550. Knowing what to use when comes from years of experimenting. So here’s the tip of a lifetime. Always take out the trash before polishing the floors otherwise you’ll be polishing a mess. By this I mean always subtract before you add. To get a clear and present vocal sound don’t reach for the 10k knob and twist. Using a parametric, set the lo-mid frequency to somewhere around 300hz. Sharpen the “Q” to it’s narrowest setting and crank the gain all the way up. The slowly sweep the frequency up and down and I promise you you’ll find a really horrible messy frequency in there. When you find the problem child, widen out the “Q” a bit and start subtracting. The vocal sound will open up and breathe better. Then you can add some sparkle up top. You’ll be a star in any singers eyes!